In an election cycle that keeps upping the ante on farce, we have a new frontrunner for Dumbest Political Moment: Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson couldn’t name a single world leader in a town hall interview with Chris Matthews.
For aficionados of “cringe comedy” it was a prime specimen, pure Michael Scott-grade buffoonery. The blank stare and awkward silence followed by a pained exhalation and a defeated slump: classic High Status Idiot thwarted by his own ignorance. You almost expect the trombone theme from Curb Your Enthusiasm to start playing as they zoom in on his dejected face. Staying true to the comedic scenario, VP candidate William Weld plays the role of Far More Qualified Subordinate to the hilt, attempting to prompt Johnson with an answer.
I’ve watched this clip at least five times today. It’s a nice to enjoy a few laughs at the shocking obliviousness of a man who has, refreshingly, no chance of winning the presidency.
Turning our attention to intentional comedy, here’s some good news: Jake Johannsen returns to Laughs this weekend. This time he’s at their new location, the former home of Giggles in the U District. You know, the recently relocated club I can’t stop harping on as a huge boon to metro Seattle comedy? The venue that all true comedy fans need to support in order to keep a fledgling mom-and-pop business alive at a precarious time when our city’s soul is under siege by the mirthless forces of global capital? Best booked club in the area? Couple doors down from the fire-gutted Dante’s? Yeah, that Laughs.
Anyway: if you haven’t seen Johannsen, you must. When you watch him perform you know you’re in the presence of a confirmed master. He has this wide-eyed, disarming manner and a fumbling delivery that masks a deceptively agile wit. He understates his punchlines, leaving them in plain sight for you to find.
Johannsen was on Letterman an astounding 45 times. At five minutes per appearance, that’s almost four hours of original televised material. Because there are plenty of his Letterman sets on YouTube I decided to watch a bunch of them from different decades, to see what I could glean about how he—and standup—have evolved.
Here’s a set from 1997 in which he deconstructs the idea of a fake apple pie:
And here’s one from 2013 in which he talks about a whale-watching trip he went on with his family:
Watching these two sets filmed 16 years apart, you glimpse the distinct mannerisms and cadence and innate comic sensibility that are essentially Johannsenian. It’s surprising how similar they are across the decades. Because comedy is such a progressive art—morphing over time, changing with popular tastes, staking out new attitudes, approaches and subject matter—it’s easy to forget that comics fundamentally are who they are. That thing about them that makes people laugh doesn’t change much over the course of a career, especially a successful one.
To put it more simply: Funny’s funny. It’s reductive and redundant but it’s true. That rare and valuable quality of being inherently funny is difficult to pin down but it’s unmistakable. With comics like Johannsen who have been doing it at a high level for many years, you can grasp the contours of that quality more easily. You can picture how they’d say something, so that in some weird way their voice lives in your head. That’s the stuff of art.
Jake Johannsen performs at Laughs September 30 and October 1. Ticket info here.